The above picture was taken on October 12, 2013, a Saturday, at the Long Beach Poetry Festival. After my reading, the room began to spin. I walked back to my chair, body and hands shaking, about to pass out, when a guy came up to me and, in this NYC accent, said, “Good stuff.”
Trying to compose myself, I said. “Thanks. What’s your name? Do you also write?”
“I’m Tony. Yeah, I read a little later. Hope you stick around.”
A few hours later, this same guy walked up to the podium. In a button down shirt that opened to reveal a Brian Wilson Surf Club t-shirt, he read. I sat very still, afraid to move for fear of missing a word of Tony’s poetry. His poems were heart-felt, genuine, real; the stuff that can break anybody’s heart. I went up to him afterward, “Thanks for sharing your poems. It takes courage to tell those stories.” In the hotel room that evening, I tore through Tony’s book of poems, The Last Lie.
When I got back to the East Coast, I had several emails. One from Tony, and a few from editors whom Tony had apparently contacted. One editor wanted to read my poetry. I quickly sent him a sample. Then he wanted the whole manuscript. I sent him the whole thing. He said he wanted to publish it.
Tony and I have been emailing each other ever since, chatting about poetry, writing, and music. He’s a big fan of Springsteen and Dylan. One of these days, I want to drive down to the city, give Tony a big hug, and thank the guy for listening to my stories and supporting me, a nobody who struggles to share his stories in public.
While waiting for students during office hours, I hear a gentle knock on the door. It’s Jordan, a senior colleague, a real writer who recently published his seventh collection of poetry, Clare’s Empire. He flashes a friendly smile, “BK. I have something for you.”
“Oh, please. Come on in!” I stand up, motioning with my hand to welcome him.
He hands me a copy of Tomas Tranströmer’s The Half-Finished Heaven. “I have an extra copy, and I want you to have it.”
This has been a routine of sort ever since I, a newly minted Ph.D., arrived at the college some years ago. I have received tons of poetry books from Jordan; books by both established and contemporary poets, books that people in the poetry business ought to know.
When I finished my chapbook a few years ago, now a full-length collection accepted by one of Tony’s editors, Jordan invited me over to his home. Over coffee, he pored through the manuscript, scribbling on every page, asking questions, and making smart suggestions. He did it with such care and attention, as if they were his own poems. I felt like I was in that mystical place: The Iowa Writers Workshop.
Before Jordan, there were Harry and Jim, who had retired from the college a few years ago. They too read my work with care and attention, as if I had something important to say, as if I was someone worth reading. They were the ones who brought me to the college; they saw something in me that I wasn’t able to see in myself.
Looking back, I’ve never experienced discouragement from these poets and professors, only a willingness to help and encourage, an unfailing belief in not just my stories but in how I tell them, which has helped me to imagine myself as a writer. That’s their secret power: they see potentials in you and, through a series of kind and generous acts, help you realize them.
But who am I really to be worthy of their attention?
I’m a nobody, a fake. Hired to produce scholarly work, I find myself getting up early in the morning, stumbling in the dark, trying to write a poem or two before classes begin. Worst of all, I feel guilt afterward. My job is to produce peer-reviewed articles—not poetry, memoir, and essays.
And when people find out that I write, I tell them that I dabble in it. This embarrassment, this insecurity, might have to do with not having an MFA degree in Creative Writing. It might have to do with attending a poetry reading one night in Amherst, Massachusetts, and understanding one half of what was read on the main floor of that bookstore where everybody was a hipster, from the cashier lady who was getting her MFA in poetry to her manager boyfriend, a writer and musician reading that night.
I was never in that scene.
And though I write poetry, I’m scared to death to teach it. I know little of the myriad forms and techniques of poetry. I only know that when it’s good, it hits me hard, and I have to excuse myself and flee to the nearest restroom, and cry.
You probably know my story by now. My mother died when I was probably around three years old. I was separated from my father when we left Cambodia for the refugee camps in Thailand. Not only was I one of the few Asians, but the only Cambodian (beside a cousin) in Malden High School back then, in the 1980s. I dropped out of Bunker Hill Community College after a year of riding the Orange Line back and forth from Oak Grove Station to Forest Hill Station, trying to find purpose and meaning in my life.
But I discovered literature just in time, during that crucial part of my life when I needed something to anchor myself to the land of the living. It’s a cliché for me say that literature has saved me, that it’s a kind of cheap, free therapy, that it has taught me how to live righteously and well, but all of that is true. I am here because of literature.
That, of course, is only part of the story. The other part has to do with the people who care for me, people like Harry, Jim, Jordan, and Tony who support, encourage, and listen to the voices, the emotions, the history and truth behind my words. Somehow, when I was struggling in that darkness, trying to make sense of my life, they saw something in me, and in seeing that something, they have brought me into the light, into kindness and compassion, into generosity and giving, which is what literature is truly about. For a young writer who came from a family of farmers, where writing was seen as a form of communication, not art, whose literary training began in a corner of a public library, with Charles Bukowski as his teacher, having these older, more experienced and wiser writers pay attention to me, a lost soul, that makes all the difference.
There is no other way around it. What I have received from Harry, Jim, Jordan, and Tony, I will pass it forward to younger writers. Like the way I honor my grandmother in poems and stories, I will thank my friends and mentors by supporting other writers and their works. It’s obligation, commitment, love. It’s the lesson from those who experience the transformative power of words, who know that words keep all of us alive, connected, together forever, even if no one else reads our stories. .
Bunkong Tuon teaches literature and writing for the English Department at Union College, in Schenectady, NY. Originally published in Numéro Cinq, “Gruel” is the titular poem from Tuon’s first poetry collection (forthcoming from NYQ Books). He is developing a book with Bittersweet Editions based on his experiences.